Immediately upon the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia on 10 April 1941, the Ustaše authorities set out to erect an ethnically, racially, and religiously pure state. The demographic groups that were proclaimed undesirable, starting with the Serbs, Jews, and Roma people, began to experience brutal repression, which included various kinds of restrictions, persecution, incarceration, and mass murder. One of the main building blocks of this terror comprised concentration camps, which began to be established immediately upon the Ustaše’s seizure of power. Over the next few years of the existence of the NDH, there were around 30 camps in its territory, under Croatian, German, and Italian control. They differed in character, that is, purpose, although many of them served multiple purposes. The first to come into operation were so-called “gathering camps” (sabirni logori), which served as gathering sites for all those slated for deportation out of the NDH. The second group comprised camps where prisoners were brought to perform various kinds of work tasks (“labour camps”, radni logori). In these camps, death came as a result of hard living conditions and exhaustion through gruelling work, but also at the hands of camp guards. The third group comprised the so-called “death camps” (logori smrti), the sole purpose of which, in line with their designation, was physical annihilation.
Jews from Zagreb marked with badges showing the Star of David
The organisation of the camps was under the jurisdiction of the NDH’s Ministry of the Interior, that is, its Directorate for Public Order and Safety (Ravnateljstvo za javni red i sigurnost, RAVSIGUR) and the Ustaše Supervisory Service (Ustaška nadzorna služba, UNS), that is, its Section III. Oversight of all camps in the territory of the NDH was entrusted to the Ustaše Defence Service Command (Zapovjedništvo Ustaške obrambene službe), as the executive arm of the UNS Section 3. The main figures in the establishment of the camp system were Eugen Dido Kvaternik as the director of RAVSIGUR and commander of UNS and Vjekoslav Maks Luburić as head of UNS Section 3 and commander of all Ustaše camps in the NDH.
THE MAIN CAMPS
The first Ustaše camp was established on 15 April 1941 at “Danica”, a disused factory near Koprivnica. Although its prisoners were subject to various kinds of mistreatment, from physical abuse to forced labour and malnourishment, no mass killings were perpetrated at Danica. However, when the camp reached “full capacity” in late June, prisoners began to be transferred to Gospić as the hub of a new system of prison camps.
The former site of the camp at Danica
Unlike the camp at Danica, the network of camps centred at Gospić operated with the exclusive purpose of physical extermination. For that purpose, camps or, rather, execution sites were established at Jadovno in the mountains of Velebit, as well as Slana and Metajna on the island of Pag. Upon reaching Gospić in cattle cars, Serbs, Jews, Roma people, and communists from across the NDH were taken to one of the execution sites, where they did not stay for long. Most of them were executed in Velebit (Jadovno) and thrown into one of the many surrounding pits. Some prisoners were taken to Karlobag and then shipped to the island of Pag. There, the men were separated from the women and taken to the camps at Slana or Metajna.
The former site of the camp at Metajna on the island of Pag
In addition to mass murders, the Ustaše also subjected their female Serb and Jewish prisoners to daily ordeals of rape. The prison camp system centred at Gospić was dismantled in late August 1941, when the Italians occupied that part of the NDH. There are no precise data regarding the number of victims, with estimates ranging from 15,000 to 40,000, mostly ethnic Serbs and Jews.
OTHER CAMPS IN NDH
The camp at Loborgrad (Hrvatsko Zagorje) went into operation in September 1941 and kept running until October 1942. This camp imprisoned mostly women, mainly Jewish and Serb. Most of the Jewish women were deported from this camp to Auschwitz, while Serb and Croat women were transferred to Jasenovac. In Đakovo, there was a camp running between winter 1941 and summer 1942, when all of its prisoners were transferred to the Jasenovac camp. Under the Croatian Banovina (an autonomous province within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), a penal facility had been established at Kruščica near Travnik for political prisoners, mostly communists. Upon the establishment of the NDH, the facility was turned into a concentration camp, which would remain in operation until the end of 1941. In addition to the camps mentioned above, the NDH authorities also ran major camps at Tenja near Osijek, Sisak, Jastrebarsko, Gornja Rijeka near Križevci, etc.
Apart from the camps run by the Ustaše regime, there were several camps in the territory of the NDH that were run by Nazi Germany (Zemun/Semlin, Jankomir, Vinkovci/Winkowitz, Sisak/Sissek) and fascist Italy (Kampor on the island of Rab, Molat/Melada, Kraljevica/Porto Re, Brač/Brazza, Hvar/Lesina, Gruž/Gravosa, Lopud/Mezzo, etc.).
JASENOVAC CONCENTRATION CAMP
By area, the number of prisoners, and the number of victims, the largest camp in the territory of the NDH was located near the village of Jasenovac. The surviving prisoners from the Gospić network of camps were taken first to Jastrebarsko as a transit camp and then, on 23 August 1941, to the newly established camp at Jasenovac. Until its demise in late April 1945, Jasenovac was the main and largest camp in the territory controlled by the NDH.
In terms of purpose, it was a combination of a labour and death camp, in other words, its prisoners were made to perform various kinds of hard work, but there were mass executions. The Ustaše murdered their prisoners at Jasenovac with firearms and sharp and blunt objects, by hanging, smashing their heads with mallets, starvation, and exhaustion through hard manual work.